Sunday, February 28

Stick-toting puffins offer the first evidence of tool use in seabirds

Annette Fayet was scanning
a colony of Atlantic puffins off the coast of Wales when something caught her
eye. A puffin, gently bobbing on the sea, held a stick in its orange-black bill.
Then, the seabird used it to scratch its back.

“I was surprised and
excited,” says Fayet, an ecologist at the University of Oxford who studies
puffin migration. Puffins (Fratercula arctica) had never been seen using
tools. In fact, no seabird had.

Fayet recorded the unusual
behavior in her notebook, but it would take four more years before she got
photographic evidence. In 2018 on Grimsey Island in Iceland, one of her motion-sensitive
camera captured a puffin snatching a stick from the ground and using it to
scratch its chest feathers. 

Those observations, described December 30 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represent the only known example of a bird in the wild using a tool to scratch itself.

A remote motion-sensitive camera captured a puffin on Grimsey Island in Iceland picking up a stick and using it to scratch its feathers in July 2018. It’s the second time researchers studying puffins have spotted such tool use and the first time it’s been documented in seabirds.

Scientists have long known
that some birds use tools, mostly to extract food. Stick-wielding crows wow biologists with their ingenuity  (SN: 9/14/16), some parrots grind down seashells with pebbles and Egyptian vultures can crack ostrich eggs with
rocks. But seabirds, which tend to have smaller brains,
were written off as prospective tool users, Fayet says. The puffin discovery
suggests that tool use in birds may be more widespread and varied than
previously thought, she and her colleagues say.

“I’m not surprised that
seabirds can use tools,” says Corina Logan, a behavioral ecologist at the Max
Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who wasn’t
involved in the study. She says so many creatures’ cognitive abilities remain
undiscovered because detecting them takes so much time and energy. 

Despite the small sample
size, Logan says she’s convinced puffins can use tools in part because the
behavior was seen in two populations four years and 1,700 kilometers apart.
Most tool use in birds revolves around eating, but this study “expands our
predictions about which species engage in [tool use] and why they might need or
want to do so.”

The puffins might be using
sticks to flick ticks, a common puffin parasite, from their plumage, Fayet and
her colleagues suggest. Summer 2018 in Iceland, when the behavior was caught on
video, was an especially bad tick season.